Skip to main content

Medal of Honor Upgrades Are Rare – And Should Be Rare

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has sent a letter to Department of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pressuring him – as he did former secretary Robert Gates – to review the War on Terror's combat decoration recipients and upgrade some to the Medal of Honor.

The DOD has consistently responded that the majority of U.S. casualties in the War on Terror have been caused by improvised explosive devices, landmines or snipers. The strict battlefield criteria for the Medal of Honor have simply not been met, and the awards presented are appropriate.

After the so-called "Purge of 1917," which stripped 911 Medals of Honor from past recipients, the DOD established policies requiring thorough battlefield investigations and direct eyewitness testimony. Only 178 Distinguished Service Crosses out of more than 13,000 issued since 1917 have been upgraded to Medals of Honor. Upgrades have been rare because policy dictates that the first decoration be reexamined, rejustified, and then reevaluated with new evidence.

Hunter disagrees with the current process; he points to 32 Distinguished Service Cross upgrades made in later years to Vietnam veterans. But that's 32 of more than a thousand recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross during the Vietnam War. The strictness of Department of Defense procedures is revealed in the story of one of those 32, Roy Benavidez, Yaqui-Mexican ancestry, of Cuero, Texas.

In May 1968, a 12-man team came under fire by a North Vietnamese battalion and desperately called for extraction. Fifth Special Forces Group Sgt. Benavidez voluntarily boarded a helicopter that located the surrounded men in two groups.

Benavidez jumped with only a medical bag and a field knife. He was shot in the leg, and an enemy grenade knocked him to the ground as he made his way to the first group.

He picked up an AK-47, gathered ammunition from the dead, tended to the injured, and ordered the survivors into firing position. As he called in for air strikes and a rescue chopper, another bullet hit him in the thigh. Benavidez retrieved a classified pouch from the dead team leader, was shot again and hit by another enemy grenade. He dragged the dead and wounded into the chopper. It lifted off to retrieve the second group, with Benavidez running beneath it firing until it set down. As the pilot took off with the second group, he was killed, and the chopper crashed. Benavidez dragged the bodies out, tended the wounded, and set up a second perimeter.

When another chopper arrived, Benavidez dragged the wounded to it. He was carrying Staff Sgt. Lloyd Mousseau over his shoulder when a North Vietnamese soldier charged him. The soldier broke Benavidez's jaw and bayoneted him twice before Benavidez killed him with his field knife. He loaded Mousseau onto the chopper, grabbed an AK-47 on the ground, and killed two more charging enemy soldiers before stepping aboard – holding his intestines in with his hand.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

At Loc Ninh, they declared him dead. The doctor was zipping up the body-bag when Benavidez summoned enough strength to spit in the doctor's face to tell him he was alive.

It took more than a year for him to recover from 37 bayonet, bullet, and shrapnel wounds received in that six-hour battle. Gen. William Westmoreland presented the Distinguished Service Cross to Benavidez at the hospital at Fort Sam Houston.

In 1973 Benavidez's former Special Forces commander, Col. Ralph Drake, received new reports on his actions and insisted that Benavidez be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Drake received an exemption from Congress on the decoration's term limit, but the Army board denied the upgrade because of no eyewitness accounts. No injustice was intended; the policy simply had not been met.

The commander's quest appeared in a news story that battle-survivor Brian O'Connor read while on vacation in Australia. He submitted the required eyewitness report. The board investigated, and President Ronald Reagan presented Benavidez the Medal of Honor on February 24, 1981.

Congressional oversight of the military is necessary, but the Medal of Honor selection process should be off limits. Political meddling and special interest pressure can only tarnish the award.

Vietnam veteran Terry Calandra's recent guilty plea in federal court to falsifying information to obtain a Medal of Honor proves the point. His clever efforts had prompted a former congressman, a U.S. senator, and the entire Pennsylvania legislature to lobby for him to receive a medal upgrade – until his fraud was uncovered.

The Medal of Honor is this nation's highest combat award. The process of selection must remain exclusively with the Department of Defense for the medal to retain its valorous prominence – today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Ed Hooper is a military affairs reporter and a writer for the History News Service. E-mail: